Thursday, March 27, 2014

Bonhoeffer, 1937, Chapter 1, “Costly Grace”

Chapter 1, “Costly Grace”

Bonhoeffer begins with a discussion of what has since become an iconic idea in Christianity, the idea of grace which is “cheap” or “costly.” In his view, true grace is costly. It cost God the life of Jesus. It costs us our lives as well. Yet it is grace, because it delivers the riches of God to us. Cheap grace, as Bonhoeffer defines it, is limited to doctrine. The intellectual assent is sufficient. It does not demand changed actions.

After detailing cheap grace and explaining some of the costs of costly grace, Bonhoeffer speaks of the decline of costly grace as Christianity spread. He views the monastic movement as a failed attempt to recover costly grace. Because only a few could enter monastic orders, this costly grace was available only to a small portion of the body of Christ.

Luther was confronted with the cost of discipleship both when he entered the monastic life and when he was driven back to the world. he saw that grace was all he could trust. Bonhoeffer asserts (Loc. 672) that in Luther’s view our secular callings are only justified as far as they are carried on in the process of following Jesus. This, he says, was a major thrust of the Reformation.

Bonhoeffer goes on to say that Luther’s followers, though they held pure doctrine, were weak on discipleship (Loc. 686). I question this assertion in light of the events of the 16th to 18th centuries, when we see a constant struggle for orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

Bonhoeffer continues by distinguishing between life-changing grace and grace which merely assures us of God’s forgiveness when we sin. In this context he brings up Luther’s famous statement, pecca fortiter, sed fortius fide et gaude in Christo. By casting it as a conclusion rather than a premise of an argument Bonhoeffer attempts to redeem the statement and generalize it to apply to our whole life, including the times we fail in our discipleship. I could wish he had taken the statement as Luther used it, rather than as a maxim. In context, Luther is urging action based on biblical conclusions rather than inaction based on custom.

Bonhoeffer repurposes the statement and applies it as a call to repentance for our sins. He then calls the church, particularly Lutherans in his part of the world, to follow Jesus, pursuing an active obedience, which he holds over against an assent to correct doctrine.

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